Hmmm this isn’t an easy post to write, I am not really sure how to put the Carnaval experience down in words…
I will start at the very beginning –with what Carnaval really is (firstly, that aint a spelling mistake – that’s how the locals spell Carnaval, it’s a good way to separate it from all those other wannabe carnivals held all over the world that are a cheap imitation of the real thing in Rio)!
Carnaval was originally a religious festival allowing the Catholics to have a bit of a party before they begin the period of Lent. So on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday the city is handed over to the King of chaos, who then allows chaos to reign until the following Tuesday… and that’s basically what happens, all the normal sensible rules that regulate life are thrown away for five days, all drinking related rules are ignored for the period – anyone call sell and consume booze anywhere, and people just go mental – which would be fine in a nice European style city, but put 3,000,000 hot blooded Latin Americans and 1,000,000 unsuspecting tourists together, and you get a real good sense of what partying really is.
The city then parties from Saturday morning when the city is handed over, until Tuesday night when the city again handed back (in a formal ceremony of course) to the regular mayor and everyone goes home for a good sleep.
This five day long party is a good example of the Brazilian way of life, officially the public holiday is only Tuesday and a half day on Wednesday, but everyone then takes the Monday off as well – and then in preparation most take the preceding Friday afternoon off as well to get ready, and also the Wednesday afternoon off to recover, so what is technically a one and a half day holiday – turns into a 5.5 day holiday with employers having no choice but to foot the bill – we need more of this kind of thinking me thinks!
So you ask what about the parades and scantily clad ladies (and gentlemen) where do they fit in? Well the bit you see on TV every year with the floats and the 1000’s of dancers is actually a samba dancing competition between the top dance schools in Rio. The competition has two leagues, with the second first division all parading on the first two nights of Carnaval, and the 12 schools that make up the first division all parading over the last two nights of Carnaval.. The competition is judged kind of like gymnastics – the schools are judged on a whole range of technical, musical and artistic areas and the winners are announced on Ash Wednesday. There is also a promotion and relegation process whereby the bottom two schools are relegated to the second division so its very very competitive.
And the schools really are Samba dance schools – this aint no corporate themed publicity stunt, the schools are mainly from the poorer parts of Rio, and they spend 12 months getting ready for carnaval, coming up with an overall theme, building the floats, coming up with songs (they have to have easy to remember lyrics, catchy beats and lots of drums) and dances. Each school usually has about seven or eight floats, a band of about 80 dancing drumming musicians and about 4000 dancers, a lot of the dancers are actually from overseas and these guys and girls pay about US$200 for the right to dance with the school, the money raised goes towards the costs of the parade, which are now over US$1,000,000 per school!
The Rio Carnaval isn’t actually performed on the streets, it’s held in a 2km long purpose built stadium, so each school has 100 minutes to get their entire school from one end of the stadium to the next, there is then 30 minutes for them to clear the area and then the next school starts. This being Brazil you obviously can’t start anything before 9pm – so you can imagine that with the usually relaxed time keeping this is quite a long event, we arrived at 8pm to get a good seat and got back home at 6:45am – and this is a family event, we were surrounded by local families some of whom were still dancing like mad when we headed for the metro at dawn!
Much like any other sport, all the locals of Rio (called Carioca’s – pronounced like ‘karaoke’ but ending in an ‘a’) have a favourite school and will go extra mental for their school – and when I say mental I mean in a way that we English based societies really don’t get – there is absolutely no polite reserve during Carnaval, everything including crowd participation is done at 180% with as much yelling, dancing and merry making as you can muster. We had some poor American tourists in front of us who were dragged up to dance when the locals thought they weren’t putting enough effort in!
On the day after the official Carnaval there is then the Gay Carnaval which is a whole ‘nother story –kind of think Sydney Mardi Gras but with an R18 rating…. we watched it live on TV and the main point of the coverage seemed to be the cameraman’s challenge of determining if the dancers were pre or post operation transvestites – all in the best possible taste of course!
So with the official parades being limited by ticket sales, the other 3,900,000 party goers each night are entertained each night by block parties all over the city, these are seemingly totally unorganised organic party mayhem – we went to one on ipanema beachfront (and no we didn’t see the girl – she must have had the night off) which must have had 500,000 people there dancing, drinking and smoking in the rain – and the roads weren’t even closed – poor motorists who drove into the street ended up stuck for hours while crazy locals danced on their roofs – while offering the poor drivers and passengers cans of beer and other substances to help pass the time!
Now one of the first things that people associate with Rio and Carnaval is the street crime, and it is a serious problem not to be understated at all. Lots of people fall victim to pickpockets or muggings during Carnaval, but prevention is best of defence so it’s pretty simple to stay safe, you simply don’t go into Rio with anything that you wouldn’t care to loose and your pretty much fine. The uniform of most people attending Carnaval is pretty similar, havaianas (aka thongs, jandals or flip flops), beach shorts, a t-shirt or singlet, a $5 digital watch, a $5 pair of sunglasses, and just enough money for beer, food and a taxi home– and nothing else –having nothing that you would worry about being stolen allows you to concentrate on partying hard!
So our Carnaval adventure started on Caths second day at work, one of her bosses invited us to stay with his family in Rio and he would host us for the long weekend, we of course said yes, but it is somewhat odd to stay with a stranger for a five days, but heh – it couldn’t be that bad could it?
So we got a mid day flight (1 hour from SP) but got stuck in the air for an extra hour as our airport was closed due to heavy rain – not a great start to the weekend.
We then got a taxi to Guilhermes place to find him very hung over and his wife still in bed – turns out they had been partying on Saturday from 8am to 6am the following day – this is our kind of host! But he had managed to cook us a sensational Feijoada – Brazil’s national dish, and roughly equivalent to a Sunday Roast in English culture, from Wikipedia here is the description of Feijoada:
The Brazilian feijoada is prepared with black turtle beans, with a variety of salted pork and beef products such as salted pork trimmings (ears, tail, feet), bacon, smoked pork ribs, at least two types of smoked sausage and jerked beef (loin and tongue).
This stew is best prepared over slow fire in a thick clay pot. The final dish has the beans and meat pieces barely covered by a dark purplish-brown broth. The taste is strong, moderately salty but not spicy, dominated by the flavors of black bean and meat stew.
Perhaps luckily for us Guilherm had produced what he called the ‘foreigners’ version of the dish minus the tongues, ears and feet of the normal dish, it was sensational, definitely the best stew I have ever had and a recipe that will be coming back home with us when we leave Brazil.
Our host then took us down to his local beach – about 1km from his house, and 24km long – finally after years of crap European beaches we are back in a land of great beaches – sandy, golden, loads of surfers and swimmers everywhere and of course the obligatory games of volleyball and footvolley – imagine volleyball but you can’t use your hands or arms – really hard to play but very entertaining to watch..
So that Sunday night they packed us off to a block party at Ipanema, which was a wet but fun start to our weekend, we hung out on the street, dancing, drinking cheap beers and watching the world go by till about 3am – we didn’t want to peak too early did we!
The next day we woke up to rain – lots of rain, so we lounged around for the day with our host and his lovely wife Sonia and her mum, practising our Portuguese and eating and drinking – our host wouldn’t let a moment go by without us having a cold beer or a caipirinha in our hand.
In the evening we went into Rio and through some of our hosts contacts we managed to score some excellent tickets to the second night of Carnaval, that was a really, really long night, but one of the most memorable nights of my life, definitely one of those things to put in the ‘to do before I die’ list!
The dancers were amazing, the combination of really loud samba music, amazing costumes, scantily clad lads and ladies and amazing floats made the nine hours we were there just fly by. Every school had a different theme, and a different theme song, which everyone would sing as they paraded by – each school had 100 minutes to pass by, so you got lots of time to soak in the amazing spectacle, we didn’t have our camera with us – we left our little camera in Oz by mistake and there was no way big bertha was going out in Rio, so we don’t have any snaps, but here is some that other people have taken that sum it up pretty well:
So that’s it, enough said add it to your list of things to do before you die!